After Bathing At Baxter's was the same album every major band released in 1968: the token Sgt. Pepper's response. According to myth the whole thing was in the can before Pepper came out, but the band went back to the master tapes and remixed it, adding more goofy stereo trickery, after hearing the way Beatles had raised the bar. Jeff Tamarkin's book doesn't back this up, and I'm inclined to believe him over anyone else, but the story deceptively hints at the musical zeitgeist of the time: everyone suddenly felt like they were playing catch-up. It's just not entirely clear why.
It's hard for younger people (myself included) to fathom today just why Pepper is considered such a landmark. It's been in the cultural dialogue again a lot lately, due to the whole fortieth anniversary hoo-hah, and there's been a predictable amount of backlash. Most people today think it's just not that great. I'm a huge Beatles fan, and I'd rate it their fifth-best album at best, maybe lower. Revolver seems to have replaced it as the consensus greatest-of-all-time; so how did Pepper ever earn that title in the first place?
What stories like the Airplane remixing Baxter's after hearing Pepper really illustrate is how the Pepper myth gets it wrong. Pepper was radical for three reasons: the compositional complexity, the instrumentation and the since-debunked (by Lennon himself, on many occasions) "concept-album" theory. But Pepper was by no means any sort of a revolution in mixing-desk wizardry. In fact, the Beatles themselves only oversaw the mono mix; the stereo mix was done without them and was the one which saw wide release. As far as headphone nuttiness goes, there's nothing on the album nearly as radical as Revolver's "Tomorrow Never Knows".
My theory is that other bands, knowing they were unable to compete with the Beatles as composers, instead drenched their songs in trippy effects. Since the slew of supposed Pepper-response albums that flooded the market the following year were all full of extraneous stereo psych-outs, Pepper's reputation has evolved to incorporate that. But really, from a sonic standpoint, Baxter's has nothing to do with Pepper.
Having said all that (where was I?), Baxter's remains my favourite Airplane record for two reasons: the sheer sonic nuttiness of it (check out the "whoa, buddy, I think my turntable is melting" bit at the end of "Martha"), and Jack Cassidy's bass work. I will go to my grave believing Cassidy to be one of the most underrated rock bassist who ever picked up a four-string, and he absolutely owns Baxter's.
A while back J—, on an iTunes store binge, asked me to recommend a few obscure favourites. Since he's a bass player, I told him to check out Baxter's, warning him about its more dated qualities (I'll address those Friday). I told him to download these two tracks first as a sampler, then get the rest of the record if he could stand the cringe-worthy hippie-dippy aspects of them. I'm not sure if he just ignored me (understandably; I mean Jefferson Airplane? What are you, like, sixty? Dude.), so what the hell, I'll just post them here now. I chose them because I think they have some of the more interesting bass work on the record. This means, unfortunately, that I must forgo "rejoyce" [capitalisation sic], in which Grace Slick sings my all-time favourite anti-war lyric of the Vietnam era:
War is business so give your son
But I'd rather have my country die for me
I also decided against posting the entire nine-minute bass solo from side two. But hey, can't have it all.
I think I bought this one in Boston, or rather Cambridge, at Planet, one of my favourites. Price tag: a cool $5.99, baby. This was one of my favourite stoner records sophomore year in college (it is worth noting that I was grilled for at least 50% of my waking hours that year), much to the chagrin of my three roommates, who had little interest in such hippie-psych twaddle. They were Stones/Velvets/Stooges guys, really. Tough shit.
Jefferson Airplane -
"Martha" and "The Last Wall of the Castle"
NOTE: Check out the vinyl link, if you haven't yet. You can order Baxter's brand-new on vinyl from the Airplane's official site. How cool? Also, what the fuck is this? Hardcover? I want one.