Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Jefferson Airplane - Another Missile is Flying


Jefferson Airplane - Another Missile is Flying

(soniclovenoize “1970 album” reconstruction)

Side A:

1.  Have You Seen The Saucers?

2.  Up or Down

3.  Sunrise 

4.  Starship

Side B:

5.  Bludgeon of a Bluecoat

6.  Emergency

7.  Mexico

8.  Pretty As You Feel

9.  Mau Mau (Amerikon)

To celebrate America’s birthday, here is an album reconstruction from the quintessential American psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane.  This is a reconstruction of Jefferson Airplane’s relatively un-made album, intended to be released in 1970.  Due to the contrasting trajectories of the individual band members– with Grace Slick and Paul Katner focusing on their solo album Blows Against The Empire, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen focusing on their side project Hot Tuna, and Marty Balin simply disengaging from the band entirely– an all-original, studio 1970 Jefferson Airplane album instead materialized as a label-created greatest collection.  The band would eventually regroup and complete the album as Bark in 1971, without founding member Marty Balin and much of the band’s creative core.  

By 1969, the Jefferson Airplane had become the mainstream face of groundbreaking American psychedelic rock.  Armed with a trio of lead singer/songwriters in Marty Balin, Paul Katner and Grace Slick (who uniquely weaved in and out of harmony, unison and their own solo vocalization, creating a distinct “communal” vocal sound) and the virtuosic improvisations of bassist Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, the band’s Volunteers album became the year’s banner of the counterculture.  But after headlining Woodstock, the Airplane began a slow descent with the loss of their long-time drummer Spencer Dryden.  His replacement was the much younger and more energetic Joey Covington, who had already been playing in Casady & Kaukonen’s electric (and sometimes acoustic) blues side project Hot Tuna.  His more dynamic style gave Jefferson Airplane a much needed lift and the band slowly began to debut new material throughout the tour to support Volunteers that Fall:  Marty Balin’s soul-rockers “Up and Down”, “Drifting” and “Dresses Too Short”; Grace Slick’s comment on the emerging War On Drugs, “Mexico”; and Paul Kanter’s proto-grunge political anthem “Mau Mau (Amerikon)”.  

The band went into the studio in February 1970 to record “Mexico” as a single, along with another of Kantner’s newer compositions, “Have You Seen The Saucers”, a song that heralded his love of science fiction themes in his songs.  Also recorded for consideration was “Up and Down”, as well as another new Balin composition, “Emergency”, and demos for Slick’s “Frozen Nose” & Kaukonen’s “Been So Long”.  

The single received a very lukewarm release in May, damaging the group’s confidence and coinciding with an era of wandering and disinterest from the various members of the band.  Casady, Kaukonen and Covington ventured out as Hot Tuna, leaving Slick and Kantner– now officially a couple and pregnant with their first child– alone to record demos for the next studio Jefferson Airplane album.  Balin, in contrast, had grown particularly impatient with the split of the two camps in the band, and chose to spend his time bumming around on the beach.  

As it became more and more apparent that a 1970 Jefferson Airplane album wasn’t happening, Slick & Katner repurposed their demos into the duo’s first solo album, Blows Against The Empire, released under the banner Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship (no relation to the later, actual Jefferson Starship).  Featuring a slew of Bay Area musician friends such as Jerry Garcia, Graham Nash and David Crosby, the album featured a new version of “Mau Mau (Amerikon)”, as well as a number of songs that continued Kantner’s sci-fi obsession, specifically concerning a group of hippies hijacking a starship to leave Earth for a new, utopian planet.  

Although their songs were earmarked for Blows Against The Empire, Grace & Paul continued playing sporadic gigs with Jefferson Airplane if all six members were available.  Debuted later in 1970 were two compositions from drummer Covington, “Whatever The Old Man Does (Is Always Right)” and “Bludgeon of a Bluecoat”, and curiously an improbably cohesive jam of Slick & Kantner’s “Starship”.  Apparently returning to the studio that Fall, the band worked on Covington-led tracks that featured some heavy-hitter guests: “Bludgeon of a Bluecoat” featured Little Richard and his “Pretty As You Feel” was extracted from a 30-minute jam with Carlos Santana!

Although the release of Blows Against The Empire was eminent, Paul and Grace conducted an October interview that claimed the next Jefferson Airplane album was well on its way, and specifically name dropped the songs in consideration: Covington’s “Bludgeon of a Bluecoat” and “Pretty As You Feel”; Balin’s “Emergency” and “Up or Down”; Kantner’s “To Dianna” and “Today We Are All One”; Slick’s “Crazy Miranda” and “Flying Fishman”; and two unnamed Kaukonen tracks written by his brother, Peter Kaukonen.  Kanter also curiously stated their intent to include live versions of both “Mexico” and “Have You Seen The Saucers” on the next album as well.  Despite the positive assessment of the band’s progress, RCA instead released The Worse of Jefferson Airplane, a greatest hits compilation that November.  

More turbulence occurred with even more personnel changes: the addition of electric fiddle player Papa John Creach (who had been rediscovered by Covington and subsequently played with Hot Tuna), and the loss of Marty Balin, who had finally had enough of the band politics, lack of focus and drug use.  Although by April 1971 Balin was gone and the Airplane had no pilot, the group buckled down to finish the album begun the previous year.  After dropping all of Balin’s songs and replacing them with newer compositions such as the great “Feel So Good”, “When The Earth Moves Again” and “Third Week In The Chelsea” (as well as a depressing slew of unmemorable ones), the resultant album Bark was released in September.  Although it charted 11 on the Billboard album charts (thanks to the hit “Pretty As You Feel”), it marked the creative decline of the band, who would only last for an additional lackluster studio album (1972’s Long John Silver) before crashing– and it’s rebirth into Jefferson Starship in 1974.  But is it possible to imagine what a Marty Balin-led 1970 Jefferson Airplane could have been?  

For this reconstruction, we will assume that Jefferson Airplane somehow did not splinter apart throughout 1970, which would then designate any songs from Blows Against The Empire as fair game for inclusion (although we will generally focus on the songs featuring other Airplane members).  Additionally, since much of the material intended for their 1970 album remained unrecorded (or, at least, unavailable to us), then we will also draw upon some high-quality live recordings– specifically the pair of shows from 9/14/70 and 9/15/70, which serene rips of the actual master reels are available in bootleg circles.  For this reconstruction, we will only use recordings that date from the February 1970 single sessions, up until the end of the year, solely when Marty Balin was still in the band; thus although Kantner specifically mentioned the songs as in consideration in 1970, “Crazy” Mary”, “To Dianna” and “Flying Fishman” are disqualified, as they were recorded after this time period.  

Side A begins with what I think of as the gateway song of this era, “Have You Seen The Saucers.”  Although Kantner specifically noted a live version would have been featured on their actual 1970 album, we will use the original studio version here to account for an unfortunate lack of group studio recordings of this era; this version is the rare alternate mix from the Early Flight compilation, which rocks way harder to my ears.  Following is “Up or Down”, also a studio recording found on Early Flight.  This crossfades into “Sunrise” from Blows Against The Empire, used here as it features both Grace and Jack Casady on fuzz bass.  This itself crossfades into the lengthy live take of “Starship” from the 9/14/70 bootleg, with specific instrumental flubs edited out and using Izotope Ozone to adjust the levels of the various instruments to match the rest of the reconstruction.  

Side B begins with Covington’s “Bludgeon of a Bluecoat” and Balin’s “Emergency”, both also taken from the 9/14/70 tape, rebalanced in Ozone.  Again, we use the studio take of “Mexico” from Early Flight, followed by “Pretty As You Feel” from The Essential Jefferson Airplane, again rebalanced with Ozone to construct a mix that doesn’t sound like the band was recorded in a different room; note that while it was claimed “Pretty as You Feel” was tracked in 1971, the fact that the recording was referenced in two separate interviews from October 1970 suggested that the song was actually recorded before Balin left the group, and is fortunately fair game for this reconstruction!  The album closes with Kantner’s “Mau Mau (Amerikon)”, included as it also features Joey Covington on drums and backing vocals (as well as the fact that Jefferson Airplane actually performed an early version in 1969).  

The resulting album–which I call Another Missile is Flying–is an excellent upgrade from the oft-dismal Bark, continues the trajectory of Volunteers, and incorporates the best parts of Blows Against The Empire.  Although we only hear the trio of Marty, Paul and Grace singing on “Have You Seen The Saucers” (which is one of my favorite songs of all time, by the way), the mix of Marty’s songs is still a welcome consolation.  The true heroes and the glue that makes the album cohesive is Covington’s manic drums and Casady’s fat, virtuosic bass, each on all but one track.  With that, come and join us on the other side of the sun…

Sources used:

Jefferson Airplane - Early Flight (1997 CD Remaster)

Jefferson Airplane - The Essential Jefferson Airplane (2005 digital download )

Jefferson Airplane - 9/14/70 (2013 remaster by BRUNO from the master reels)

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship - Blows Against The Empire (2005 Legacy Remaster)