Pillbox

Psychedelic music albums worth dusting off

This is a column about music from the psychedelic era, a time which ranged from about 1964 and the British Invasion to 1969 and Woodstock. The psychedelic era was one of the most interesting eras in American music because there was a new wave of rock that was revolutionary and different, inventive and unusual, and was listened to by millions.

Even if you don't know what psychedelic music is, you undoubtedly know many of the musical groups which were a part of it. The Animals, Cream, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and even the Beatles in their later years were all considered psychedelic artists. There are many more whom you have not heard of: Aorta, The Seeds, Mandrake Paddlesteamer, and ones with even stranger names. Every small town in America had at least one garage band during this period, usually composed of high school kids who produced an average of just one 45 single in their whole careers. This column will profile one album per installment ? a retrospective of its significance and of the group which produced it ? perhaps as an effort to preserve this increasingly forgotten genre of Americana, or perhaps simply to direct you, the reader, to some really good music.

We begin with one of the most popular psychedelic groups ever to make it, and their most successful album. Jefferson Airplane was formed in 1965 in San Francisco, the very heart of the psychedelic scene. They produced one album, [ITAL]Jefferson Airplane Takes Off[ITAL], in 1966, which, while reviewed favorably, did not sell many copies. Later that year, the Airplane's lead female singer, Signe Anderson, left the group for family reasons. She was replaced by Grace Slick, who left her group The Great Society to be with the Airplane. Slick brought with her two songs which would make the core of Jefferson Airplane's second album.

To say that [ITAL]Surrealistic Pillow[ITAL] is a masterpiece is an understatement. The emotion perfectly captures the feeling of the mid-'60s; it can make the most conservative of listeners want to become flower children. Two hits sprung from this album, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," the two songs which Slick had performed with The Great Society. "Somebody to Love" is Slick's fast-paced vocal triumph, accompanied by a kickin' guitar solo to finish it off. It's a shame that no live performances of this song (including the one at Woodstock) could match the energy of the studio version.

"White Rabbit," in contrast, is a trippy [ITAL]Alice in Wonderland[ITAL]-inspired drug anthem. Why a song with this theme and with such slow monotony became popular is kind of a mystery. It features Slick's vocals with bass and snare drum, and like any good psychedelic song, one must listen intently to its lyrics to get the whole message.

Though these two songs are the only ones to really become popular, the whole album is a treat. Two of my favorites are slow, deeply emotional hippie love songs. "Today" and "Comin' Back To Me" are easily the two most beautiful songs Airplane ever wrote, maybe even the prettiest of the era. Even if you didn't live a day in the '60s, these songs really transport you to that incredible time. Next come two Airplane staples, "3/5 Of A Mile in 10 Seconds" and "D.C.B.A.-25," followed by the unforgettable acoustic solo "Embryonic Journey," which lived on to be performed when the Airplane was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

There really are no bad songs in [ITAL]Surrealistic Pillow[ITAL]. Except for maybe "My Best Friend," a weak attempt at either classic rock and roll, country, or something else entirely, each song on this album has been influential. Grace Slick's extremism doesn't quite match bandleader Marty Balin's love-ballad style, but together they cover a wide range of prevalent styles, a diversity that few other groups would experience. Jefferson Airplane was put on the map because of this record.

Less than a year later they were put on the cover of [ITAL]Life[ITAL] magazine and were featured on popular television variety shows, including Ed Sullivan's and the Smothers Brothers'. The Airplane's next three albums are also good, but they don't quite capture the emotion of the time the way [ITAL]Surrealistic Pillow[ITAL] does. The last two Airplane albums, [ITAL]Bark[ITAL] and [ITAL]Long John Silver[ITAL], really aren't worth your time. In the early '70s the group fell farther downhill by becoming Jefferson Starship, which had a couple good records and then fell to the commercialism that the Airplane was born to fight. [ITAL]Surrealistic Pillow[ITAL] truly shows the band at their prime, while the fight was still in the music.