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There is no denying that Grace Slick’s musical career began with Jefferson Airplane. Even though her first group had been the short-lived project the Great Society, this outfit had been formed following Slick’s attendance of a Jefferson Airplane show.
‘As I watched Airplane perform that night (they were an eclectic group that did electric folk-rock, blues and pop), playing in a band like that seemed like the perfect thing to do,’ explained Slick in her 1998 autobiography Somebody to Love. ‘When we got home that night and added up the numbers, we realised that the members of Airplane were making more money in one night than I was making all week at I Magnin. It didn’t take us more than five minutes to start making plans to form out own band.’
Her mother liked to sing when Grace Wing was a child and soon she picked up this talent, but it would not be until she was in her mid-twenties that she considered this a legitimate option. By this point the Beatles had become the biggest band in the world, but the Rolling Stones had challenged their title. Following her marriage to Jerry Slick, the two formed the Great Society, taking their name from a program recently implimented by President Lyndon B. Johnson, began to perform on the local club scene, with Jerry on drums and his brother Darby playing guitar. Two of the songs that the band would regularly perform would become staples of Jefferson Airplane’s set-lists once Grace Slick had joined and while the Great Society would split before recording an album, material that was recorded live at San Francisco’s the Matrix would later be issued as Conspicuous Only in Its Absence.
It wouldn’t be long before the Great Society split and was invited to join Jefferson Airplane following the departure of singer Signe Toly Anderson. ‘Airplane was the first San Francisco band to sign with a major label, RCA, and since they’d already recorded Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, I could practice along with that,’ said Slick. ‘Signe was still one of the lead singers, but one night at the Fillmore, Bill Graham came backstage all worked up. ‘Where’s Signe?’ he yelled. ‘You guys were supposed to go on five minutes ago!’ I knew what was coming next. ‘Say, Grace, you think you can do the show?’ Slick would make her Jefferson Airplane debut on the band’s second album, Surrealistic Pillow, an album that many felt defined the San Francisco scene of the late 1960s and which would include two songs that Slick had carried over from her former band, White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.
Like many artists in San Francisco at that time, Jefferson Airplane were both politically charged and frequently indulging in psychedelic substances. ‘LSD was new then. It opened up our heads and gave us new insight into the fact that reality isn’t just one thing. That excited us,’ she told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. The same year she explained to Counter Punch, ‘Taking acid allows you to see there are many ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking, other than the one you came in with. In other words, it’s not rigid. That’s the Republican deal. One of the deals is people who have taken acid generally don’t turn into Republicans…It changes how you see even. I mean, the only thing alcohol does, is it fucks up your vision, so you have to close one eye to see on the freeway and stuff, but it does not give you the information that we are just a bunch of chemicals operating.’
On 15 August 1969 in New York a festival was held that would become the most famous event in the 1960s counterculture, Woodstock. Among the artists who would perform over the weekend were Santana, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane. But as the 1970s progressed the band would undergo a transformation, re-emerging as Jefferson Starship. This incarnation would not be as successful as its predecessor, but over the course of the next decade the band would release eight studio albums, although Slick would temporarily quit to focus on her solo career while the group recorded Freedom at Point Zero in 1979.
Once again, as they faced a new decade the band would undergo further changes as Paul Kantner, who had long been the driving force, decided to leave due to his disillusionment with the modern music industry. Under the banner of Starship they enjoyed further success, including the hit singles We Built This City and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, but after a brief reunion with Jefferson Airplane for their eponymous final album in 1989, Slick retired from the music industry to focus on a new career as an artist.
DIDN’T THINK SO
Ostensibly a blues song with a psychedelic undercurrent, Didn’t Think So was penned by Slick and performed with the Great Society, released through Columbia on the album Conspicuous Only in Its Absence. ‘Prior to its release the song was often referred to by the incorrect names Like a Raven, Never More and Never Thought,’ explained author Craig Fenton in Take Me to the Circus Tent: The Jefferson Airplane Flight Manual. ‘Grace held down the lead vocals with a song that was stronger on the lyrical side than the musical. Her voice didn’t stray far from the vicinity of White Rabbit.’
In between the releases of 1969’s Volunteers and Bark, which followed two years later, Kantner decided to work on a solo album, Blows Against the Empire, although ultimately other members of the band would come to join him in the studio. Among these would be Slick, who would contribute both vocals and piano, the latter accompanying guitarists David Crosby and Jerry Garcia on the mostly-instrumental Have You Seen the Stars Tonite? The song had been written by Kantner and Crosby, a guest musician who was best known for his work with the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, who would also co-write another track, A Child is Coming. Blows Against the Empire would be credited to Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, the first time the band would be referred to as Jefferson Starship, despite still professionally known as Jefferson Airplane.
THEME FROM THE MOVIE MANHOLE
Jefferson Airplane had already split when Slick decided to venture out onto her own and work on a solo album called Manhole, although members of the band were invited to participate in the recording and in some cases even the writing of the songs. Even while Slick worked on new material, guitarist Paul Kantner was forming a new incarnation called Jefferson Starship. Slick intended on her debut album to be confrontational, a theme that had continued throughout her work. ‘That title, Manhole, was meant to shock the women’s libbers and the lyrics – half Spanish, half English – were meant to please me,’ she admitted. While a departure from the style of Jefferson Airplane, the thirteen-minute epic Theme from the Movie Manhole would best demonstrate Slick’s unrestrained musical abilities, refusing to conform to a particular genre or offer the label a song that could be marketed as a single.
Based around a riff written by bassist Pete Sears and featuring a duet between Slick and Mickey Thomas, who had joined the band two years earlier, Stranger would remain the highlight of 1981’s Modern Times, which would continue to critical decline that Jefferson Starship had endured in recent years. ‘I joined Jefferson Starship in 1979, which was one of the pivotal points of re-inventing the band,’ Thomas later told GQ. ‘I wasn’t exactly a Starship fan — I came out of soul music. There were always different members coming and going, so the band was constantly evolving.’
SKETCHES OF CHINA
In January 1971, as her decade-long marriage to filmmaker Jerry Slick came to an end, Slick gave birth to her only child, China, with bandmate Paul Kantner. ‘Slick checked into an undisclosed San Francisco hospital under an assumed name,’ reported the Day. Kantner and Slick’s next album Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun would follow two years later and would include the track Sketches of China, a song many have claimed over the years was a tribute to their daughter, particularly in light of Slick’s subsequent career as an artist, thus Sketches of China. ‘I just started drawing when I was about three years old. I would draw an angel and my parents would make a Christmas card out of it,’ Slick told CounterPunch of her early attempts at art.
SALLY, GO ‘ROUND THE ROSES
Originally written for the Jaynetts, who had reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963 before vanishing into obscurity, Sally Go ‘Round the Roses became a live favourite for the Great Society and was later chosen as the opening track of Conspicuous Only in Its Absence, an album that had been recorded live at the San Francisco venue the Matrix in 1966. Perfectly capturing the sound of the city’s mid-1960s psychedelic scene, the band’s rendition of the song would also be something of a precursor for the type of music that the Velvet Underground would perfect a few years later.
LOVE TOO GOOD
While the 1980s incarnation of Starship may have become too corporate for many fans of Jefferson Airplane, when Earth was released in 1978 Jefferson Starship still felt like a continuation of the earlier band. Slick’s alcohol consumption had started to cause tension within the ranks, while the majority of the vocal duties were performed by frontman Marty Balin, but Slick’s one shining moment on Earth was the opening song Love Too Good, penned by guitarist Craig Chaquico with lyrics by Gabriel Robles. During the Jefferson Starship‘s 1978 tour of Europe Slick would suffer from sickness, resulting in the band being forced to cancel the show.
Frustrated with the changing music industry and eager to work on new material she had written, Slick walked away from Jefferson Starship to work on her second solo album, joining forces with producer Ron Frangipane to create Dreams. While the title track would prove to be the dramatic highpoint of the record, the standout moment was the Spanish-flavoured El Diablo, which boasted impressive acoustics from guitarist Scott Zito and an end solo from Sol Ditroia. ‘Beat your breast like thunder, vent your anger with a howl,’ she declared in the song. ‘You’ll not pull me under, I’ll not tremble at your growl.’
KNOCK ME OUT
Grace Slick had proved to be one of the most influential female rock singers of all time, having arrived on the scene a decade before Heart and the Runaways. She had inspired one generation after another, and in the 1990s it would be bands such as Hole, Bikini Kill and 4 Non Blondes who would walk in her shadow. Following the split of the latter, singer Linda Perry embarked on a solo career with her debut album In Flight, the highlight of which was the slow and dream-like Knock Me Out, which featured vocals from Slick. ‘You knocked me out, you bit my lip. You held me down and kept me sober,’ sang Perry. The song would later be included on the soundtrack to the fantasy sequel The Crow: City of Angels, which would also include music from PJ Harvey and Hole.
WINDS OF CHANGE
There was no denying that Jefferson Starship was Kantner’s band and Slick was in many ways dispensable, as was most evident by how Kantner dominated each of the albums, but with the title track of their 1982 record Winds of Change Slick was able to croon over the verses, with Kantner remaining on the sidelines. The song was written by bassist Pete Sears and his wife Jeannette, who had contributed lyrics to songs on the 1979 album Freedom at Point Zero and the 1981 follow-up Modern Times. ‘Both Modern Times and Winds of Change continued Jefferson Starship‘s commercial success, although by now the formula was wearing thin,’ stated Colin Larkin in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music.