Return with us to those thrilling days of… well, 1967, in any case. Do you have an original copy of "Nuggets," the Jac Holzman/Lenny Kaye collection of "Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era?" (If not, Wikipedia can bring you up to speed.)
This was the first stirrings of "Progressive music" before there was such a thing, much less Progressive Radio. And all the groups had one thing in common. No staying power. One hit wonders. A modest example is presented here.
The Electric Prunes – I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night
Exotic for 1966, what? Autoharp, fuzzy guitar… and no staying power what so ever. Can't tell you why, but it's true. Most of the music WAS designed for Top 40 radio (with running times under about 3:45), but the individual groups just didn't stick for one reason or another. But it could be said that one of the problems with the music was that, with the exception of WNEW-FM in New York and KYA in San Francisco, the Underground radio "movement" had not taken hold yet. Detroit's WABX, considered one of the better progressive/freeform stations out there, didn't crank up until February, 1968 for example, and it wasn't until the mid-point of that year that the format really took began to take hold.
So where does Jeffeerson Airplane slot into this? Right here.
Somebody to Love – Jefferson Airplane
Not their first LP mind you. That was "Takes Off," which died when vocalist Signe Anderson went off to have a baby, "Surrealistic Pillow" hit with a roar in February, 1967 like nothing else had hit rock radio. "My Best Friend" was the first 45, released in February.
My Best Friend – Jefferson Airplane
My Best Friend made it to #103 nationally, which means it must have had some regional support. Note that it's Marty Balin singing lead on this folk/rocker. But when Grace Slick and her vocal cords hit the airways in April 1967, there was no turning back.
The song didn't have to be edited for airplay with a run time of 3:01 (The Doors "Light My Fire" didn't come out as a single until May of '67, followed by the LP in January—and had to be cut from 7:06 to 2:52.
"Somebody To Love" breaks the rock single mold. There is no lead-in, starting right off with Slick's vocal. And with two small guitar breaks between the verses, the major instrumental action takes place in the last 40 seconds. And the song absolutely roars from start to finish. That's a lot of action to stuff in a 3-minute opera.
The third cut released was "White Rabbit."
White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane
Released in June, and clocking in at a whopping 2:31, it's an excellently packaged piece of rock and roll, and of the two Grace Slick leads on the LP, she goes two-for-two in the hit department. Again it's a finely crafted rock opera, with the main guitar break opening the song and taking 30 seconds or so, Slick grabs the vocal and holds it tight for the final 2 minutes of the song to a cold ending.
The rest of the LP doesn't slack off either, and was ripe for the "Key Album of the Week," which many Top 40 stations had by this time, in that no track ran more than 5:45 and most checked in at under 4 minutes, making the whole thing ripe for Top 40. A modest example is here, all 3:16 of it:
She Has Funny Cars – Jefferson Airplane
They never again had a "hit"—not that it mattered. "After Bathing At Baxter's", released later that year, did pretty good, although "The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil" was a relative flop as a single but by the time "Crown Of Creation" was released in late 1968, "Underground" FM radio was beginning to be popular, so a hit single didn't really matter as much as album airplay on this new form of radio did. And so, as they say, the rest is history, or at least until 1972, when the band splintered into various pieces.
And the floodgates opened. Granted, The Doors first album beat "Surrealistic Pillow" by a couple weeks, but later that year Country Joe and the Fish, Hendrix, Moby Grape, Pink Floyd and others released albums, and a genre was born. But it was "Surrealistic Pillow" that kicked it off.
As an aside, 1970 brought "Blows against the Empire," a Paul Kantner/Grace Slick side project under the name Jefferson Starship, the first use of that name. Written mostly by Slick and Kantner, the concept album has to be heard to be believed. It hit Number 20 on the Billboard chart, but has since mostly dropped out of sight. It IS considered by some as (Science Fiction) literature and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It's worth a listen, and is available on YouTube. I'll leave you with a little teaser, a demo by Grace Slick singing the opening verses of "Sunrise."
Sunrise – Grace Slick acoustic demo
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