Friday, July 20, 2007

Jefferson Airplane - "Embryonic Journey"

I do believe that I could make a fairly convincing case for the Jefferson Airplane as the most underrated rock band of their era. Furthermore, I also believe that I could make an equally convincing case for the Jefferson Airplane as the most overrated rock band of their era.

Briefly, then:

  • Underrated

    They produced the only studio album(s!) of note out of all the bands to emerge from the wildly hyped San Francisco scene in the mid-60s, brought American psychedelic rock to mainstream with arguably the genre's biggest hit ("Somebody to Love") and best album (Surrealistic Pillow), and headlined Woodstock. Yet unlike many other giants of classic rock they remain largely forgotten amongst anyone too young to remember their heyday. They released more than one album arguably better than their most famous, but no one's ever heard them. Despite their once-towering stature, their music has been reduced to a nostalgic curio of a bygone era.

  • Overrated

    Anyone who's ever read Rolling Stone is well-versed in the insufferable tendency of boomer's the inflate the importance of all pop cultural artifacts of their youth, and Jefferson Airplane may be the most egregious example of this habit. Often held up as "vital", and one of their era's all-time greats, their music has hardly stood the test of time and their influence is barely felt, if at all. While many of their contemporaries continue to find new fans to this day, the Airplane have, apart from two songs, been largely forgotten.

As much as I love the Airplane, I'll be the first to admit their music is woefully dated. Even my favourite moments on their album sound, if I'm not in the right mood, like the goofy noodlings of stoned hippies. The music's drug-soaked ambiance, while doubtlessly radical and dangerous for mainstream pop music at the time, tends to render their revolutionary fury impotent. How many bong-jockeys have you known whom you thought really might just get off that couch one day and overthrow the government?

But I would argue that timelessness is necessarily sacrificed to achieve such utter contemporaneity with the events of their era. The Airplane's music is unmistakeably a product of the sixties, and therefore must age. The Beatles' music is often held up as being emblematic of the spirit of the sixties, but it's really not, because it's so timeless. They and the Stones produced music which sounds just as vital today as when it was first released, but the cost of not being stuck in the past is that their music can never really represent anything outside itself.

The Airplane's music straddles no such divide. It is the sound of the sixties, plain and simple. Hearing it invokes images of bell-bottoms, long-hair, draft card burnings, be-ins, love-ins, protests and all the other images of an era someone my age knows only from photographs. Only music this dated can truly embody its era, just as music that so completely represents an era will inevitably date more quickly. As the era fades into the past, so does the relevance of the Airplane's music. The music can still be enjoyed on its own terms should you bother to seek it out. But unlike, say, Elvis Presley or Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix, in fifty years time, when the baby boomers have for the most part passed away and are no longer controlling the media outlets that still teach us today to pine for the blessed sixties, no one under the age of fifty will have any idea who the Jefferson Airplane were.

Bummer for them. I'll close out the week (and a long week it was) with a track that sounds nothing like the Airplane. I first heard this track on a tape my uncle Paul, an avid music collector, made for me one Christmas, a sort of introductory overview of acoustic guitar-based music. A couple of John Fahey cuts made the strongest impression, but this one slotted in quite nicely with the surrounding tracks. It's from Pillow, an album of nine songs forever destined to be overshadowed by the other two. It's just guitarist Jorma Kaukonek alone, flexing his pickin' chops. Nice one. No idea where I picked up the vinyl, by the way. Got it in college when I got all the other Airplane albums, probably in New York, probably for about two bucks.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Jefferson Airplane - "Embryonic Journey"

Next week, by popular demand (i.e., a single comment on a previous post): the Grateful Dead.

1 comment:

Ace Athena said...

One of the things that makes Airplane classic is the Rickenbacker California sound. There's an article about Paul Kantner and his Rickenbacker at