Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock band formed '65 in San Francisco by vocalist Marty Balin (b Martyn Jerel Buchwald, 30 January 1942, Cincinnati OH; d 27 September 2018, Tampa FL), who took over a club and renamed it the Matrix with the Airplane as house band. The lineup included lead guitarist/ vocalist Jorma Kaukonen (b 23 December 1940, Washington DC), guitarist/ vocalist Paul Kantner (b 12 March 1942, SF; d 28 January 2016), vocalist Signe Toly Anderson (b 15 September 1941, Seattle WA; d 28 January 2016, Beaverton OR), Jerry Peloquin on drums, Bob Harvey on upright bass, the last two replaced by Skip Spence and Jack Casady (b 13 April 1944, Washington DC) before the first records were made; these were a single 'It's No Secret'/'Runnin' Round This World' and a lacklustre LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. A Jefferson Airplane was said to be a split matchstick used to hold a marijuana cigarette. An early champion of the band was Ralph J. Gleason, San Francisco Chronicle critic; the band was influenced by folk and blues at first but became with the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service (after the earlier Charlatans) part of the city's musical triumvirate of acid rock, also sparking off an explosion of new bands, partly due to RCA's then-unprecedented advance of $20,000 on signing them.

Meanwhile the Great Society was also formed, inspired by the Airplane and performing at the Matrix, with vocalist Grace Slick (b Grace Wing, 30 October 1939, Chicago), her then-husband Jerry Slick on drums, brother-in-law Darby Slick on lead guitar, rhythm guitarist David Minor and drummer Peter Vandergilder; they made a single 'Somebody To Love'/'Free Advice' (latter written by John Philips) for North Beach label owned by KSAN disc jockey Tom Donahue, both sides included in compilations The Autumn Records Story '85 and Nuggets Volume Seven: The San Francisco Story '86 on Rhino. (Donahue was the pioneering FM disc jockey who programmed album tracks or anything he liked instead of pop singles, his programming very influential; he died in May '75.) Producer Sylvester Stewart (aka Sly Stone) allegedly stormed out of the studio after they required 50 takes for the A side; LPs later on Columbia Conspicuous Only In Its Absence and How It Was were taped at the Matrix. In late '66 Spence left the Airplane, joined Moby Grape and released solo Oar on Columbia, replaced in the Airplane by Spencer Dryden (b 7 April 1943, NYC; d 11 January 2005 of cancer, Petaluma CA); Anderson left on maternity leave which turned out to be permanent, replaced by Slick, who was one of the best singers in the genre, bringing 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit' from the Great Society's repertoire: versions by the Airplane both made top ten '67, helping the album Surrealistic Pillow to no. 3: the UK edition foolishly mixed tracks from the first two albums; the proper US edition included several good songs by Balin, whose influence was less pronounced on After Bathing At Baxter's '67, following criticism of his lyrics within the group. Baxter did less well and they took more care over Crown Of Creation '68, which reached no. 6 in Billboard LP chart without any hit. They had no more top 40 hits; they were a delicately poised act which easily went off kilter, but sold albums and were rivalled only by the Dead as a USA live attraction among SF acts (many of which never broke through).

They sparred with RCA over lyrics ('fantastic trips' in 'White Rabbit' was thought to refer to drugs; the word 'shit' was deleted from Baxter's lyric sheet) but Crown included David Crosby's song 'Triad', a tale of troilism (rejected by the Byrds but later included in CSN&Y's Four Way Street), also Slick's acerbic 'Greasy Heart' and surreal 'Lather'. The title track was Kantner's first science fiction epic, quoting from John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. (They felt free to quote: Slick's 'Rejoice' harked back to James Joyce's Ulysses; Dryden's 'A Small Packet Of Value Will Come To You Shortly' quoted Thelonious Monk's 'Blue Monk'.) They appeared in D.A. Pennebaker film Monterey Pop (inept editing had Slick on camera during Balin's lead vocal on 'Today'); they toured Europe '68, played at Woodstock and Altamont '69; Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti referred to them in his ode to Richard Nixon 'Tyrannus Nix' and they appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's unfinished film One AM (One American Movie) '69. Bless Its Pointed Little Head '69 was a live LP; Volunteers '69 included pastoral 'Meadowlands', 'Wooden Ships' (written by Kantner, Crosby and Stephen Stills, later included in Crosby, Stills And Nash), also 'We Can Be Together' with line 'Up against the wall, motherfuckers' (lyric sheet emasculated). The Worst Of Jefferson Airplane was compiled on RCA '70; they formed their own Grunt label and personnel changes began: Dryden left '70 to join Riders of the Purple Sage, replaced by Joe E. Covington, later by ex-Turtle John Barbata; Balin left '71, produced band Grootna, sang with bar band Bodacious D.F. (RCA LP '73), went solo (LPs on EMI-America '80-1 included his stage show Rock Justice). Casady and Kaukonen performed separately as Hot Tuna, often opened at Airplane gigs; electric violinist Papa John Creach (b 28 May 1917, Beaver Falls PA; d 22 February 1994, Los Angeles) began playing with both Airplane and Tuna. Airplane's Bark '71 was followed by their last studio album Long John Silver '72, with more lyrical problems and a sleeve that folded out to make a stash box. Ex-Quicksilver vocalist/bassist David Freiberg joined mid-'72, but Casady and Kaukonen left to make Hot Tuna full time: after eight top 20 LPs, Airplane's live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland '73 reached only no. 52, Early Flight '74 compiled obscure tracks and did not make the top 100 LPs; Flight Log was a two-disc anthology. Grunt also issued Hot Tuna LPs and solo sets: Kantner's Blows Against The Empire '70, Slick and Kantner's Sunfighter '71, Kaukonen's Black Kangaroo '72, Slick, Kantner and Freiberg's Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun '73, Your Heart Is My Heart by Joe E. Covington's Fat Fandango '73, Slick's Manhole '74. 2400 Fulton Street '87 was a good compilation, the CD edition including eleven extra tracks with such ephemera as their radio advert for Levi jeans; that year also saw 'White Rabbit' used in the soundtrack of the Vietnam war film Platoon.

Meanwhile Airplane survivors formed Jefferson Starship '74, abbreviated to Starship '85: the first lineup included Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen, Barbata, Creach, Freiberg, Craig Chaquico on lead guitar (from Steelwind, also a Grunt band); Kaukonen was soon replaced by multi-instrumentalist Peter Sears. Seeds had been sown in Kantner's Blows Against The Empire, coeval side-projects with Hot Tuna; the first Starship LP Dragonfly '74 went gold, by which time Balin had joined; his 'Miracles' helped Red Octopus '75 to reach no. 1 on four separate occasions, staying in the charts 50 weeks; Spitfire '76 also reached the top; Earth '78 was top ten, the year Slick left after a riot at Lorelei Festival in Germany did over $1m worth of damage, sparked by their refusal to go on stage. Gold was a best-of followed by Freedom At Point Zero '79, Modern Times '80, Winds Of Change '82 and Nuclear Furniture '84; these marked the recruitment of vocalist Mickey Thomas (solo LP Alive Alone on Elektra); Aynsley Dunbar joined on drums (singled out for his 'nice hot licks' in playwright Sam Shepard's The Tooth Of Crime '74); Jantner released solo Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra '83, an ill-starred attempt to recapture the San Francisco spirit of Blows Against The Empire. Songs from the band's earlier incarnations were carried over; a Jefferson Starship video '83 included 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit'. They became more commercial; personnel changes occurred over the years included Kantner's departure and Slick's rejoining; Kantner formed the KBC Band with Balin and Casady (KBC Band '86 on Arista); the Starship contributed to soundtrack of film Youngblood '85. Knee Deep In Hoopla '86 was made by Slick, Thomas, Sears, Chaquico and Donny Baldwin on drums, with chart hits 'We Built This City' and 'Sara', making effective use of MTV-type video; Video Hoopla '86 included these hits and 'Tomorrow Doesn't Matter Tonight'. Sears left before the major international success of No Protection '87, a no. 12 album in USA with UK no. 1 single 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' (from film Mannequin) helped by a video. Love Among The Cannibals '89 was back on RCA; the re-formed original Airplane lineup made Jefferson Airplane '89 on Epic. For all the name changes, only the Grateful Dead lasted longer.

Marty Balin also enjoyed painting all his life, and continued in music as a solo act through it all; his last album was The Greatest Love, which came out in 2016, the year he had open-heart surgery.