Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow - Album Of The Week Club review

Every scene needs a song to carry its message to the world, and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow provided two. But what of the rest?

Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow cover art
(Image: © RCA Victor)

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Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow

Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow cover art

(Image credit: RCA Victor)

She Has Funny Cars
Somebody to Love
My Best Friend
Today
Comin' Back to Me
3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds
D.C.B.A.–25
How Do You Feel
Embryonic Journey
White Rabbit
Plastic Fantastic Lover

Every scene needs a song to carry its message to the world, and Jefferson Airplane’s second album provided two. Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, delivered in former model Grace Slick’s confident wail, were the twin clarion calls for San Francisco rock.

Recorded mostly live, the album struck a pitch-perfect balance between Slick’s extroversion and Marty Balin’s softer folk offerings, such as How Do You Feel and Comin’ Back To Me.

It also features some of the sweetest songs they ever wrote in Today and My Best Friend alongside some of their most ferocious: 3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds (the $65 that ‘make a poor man holler’ is a comment on the price of a kilo of marijuana) and Plastic Fantastic Lover.

"That was the thing I liked about it,” said Slick. “It was like a smorgasbord. Jorma and Jack were more blues oriented; Paul was 12-string big, grand, Wagnerian cosmic political folk; I’m kind of dark and sarcastic and semi-classical; and Marty was a great love/pop song writer. So you got four for the price of one. And my way of treating stuff is different from Marty’s. And so on.”

Suddenly the whole band were firing, individually and collectively. The Airplane were flying high, and Surrealistic Pillow became one of the West Coast sound’s most durable albums.

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Other albums released in February 1967

  • Deliver - The Mamas & the Papas
  • Younger Than Yesterday - The Byrds
  • Trogglodynamite - The Troggs
  • A Hard Road - John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
  • Mellow Yellow - Donovan
  • There's a Kind of Hush All Over the World - Herman's Hermits
  • The Electric Prunes - The Electric Prunes

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What they said...

"Half-live records like Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun/came close to capturing the city’s ballroom experience on vinyl. But it was Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s second LP, with its artful compound of modal folk minstrelsy and electric acid beat, that spread the Bay Area message of peace, love and dance throughout the land. (Rolling Stone (opens in new tab))

"Jefferson Airplane had an ear for dynamics that other bands had yet to expose, which enhanced the songwriting no end. The two hits, Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, have become increasingly discernible with age, standing as fitting representations of the colourful side of that decade. It’s no coincidence that these are the two tracks sung by Grace Slick — her vocal performances are absolutely astonishing, and continue to make a stunning impact." (Audioxide (opens in new tab))

"Every song is a perfectly cut diamond, too perfect in the eyes of the band members, who felt that following the direction of producer Rick Jarrard and working within three- and four-minute running times, and delivering carefully sung accompaniments and succinct solos, resulted in a record that didn't represent their real sound." (AllMusic (opens in new tab))

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What you said...

Alex Hayes: This week's album choice makes me think back to the finale of the sitcom Friends in May 2004. Specifically, it makes me wonder just how many of the 52 million Americans that tuned into the show that night (not to mention the countless millions around the world who've watched the episode at their own leisure since then) were actually aware of the origins of the delightful acoustic instrumental that helps to close out the episode, as the titular friends leave Monica's apartment for the very last time.

That piece is called Embryonic Journey, and it can be found on the second side of Jefferson Airplane's seminal second album, 1967's Surrealistic Pillow. It was composed by lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, the man that also provided the Airplane with their distinctive moniker. You would think that a pleasant little ditty like Embryonic Journey would stick out like a sore thumb on an album so closely connected to the counterculture of the late 1960s, but no, not a bit of it. It actually fits seamlessly into the flow of this album.

I picked up a handful of Jefferson Airplane albums on a whim, many, many moons ago, Surrealistic Pillow amongst them. I have no idea what prompted me to do that, but I'm glad I did. Surrealistic Pillow is actually the most easy-going of them for me, especially when compared to After Bathing At Baxter's and Volunteers. It's quite a pleasing, folksy piece of work, that belies it's reputation as a pioneering example of early psychedelic rock. There's not much experimentation to be found in the likes of My Best Friend, Today and Comin' Back To Me, as engaging as all three are.

I guess that much of the album's infamy rests on the track White Rabbit, one of two main showcases on the album for notorious new vocalist Grace Slick. By far the 'trippiest' number on Surrealistic Pillow, its eerie, otherworldly journey down Lewis Carroll's famous rabbit hole is actually the exception to this album, as opposed to the rule. It's also still quite brilliant to this day, long after the hippie ethos that fuelled both the song itself and the original Airplane has withered away.

Apart from a couple of brief, drunken spells on the sidelines, Slick was the only constant presence in the band as the years and decades then went drifting by. A true stalwart, she stuck around as other musicians came and left at will, and Jefferson Airplane morphed firstly into Jefferson Starship, then simply Starship. Even when framed against the rapidly evolving, chameleon-like, nature of rock music back then, I still find it difficult to equate White Rabbit with the likes of We Built This City and Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now. Just 20 years have passed between those two eras, but there is no connecting thread to the music whatsoever. Completely different worlds.

It's a great time capsule is Surrealistic Pillow, even if the music on it is a little misunderstood. Just three weeks after The Yardbird's Roger The Engineer, the Club has managed to serve up another slab of eccentric, but high quality, vintage rock. Like with Roger The Engineer, Surrealistic Pillow is music that is definitely of it's time, but is very much worth the trip back there.

Neil Immerz: A great band and a great album. I knew the two ‘Hits’ from a best-of my dad has and surprisingly, back in 1972, George Benson had an album called White Rabbit and he does his own instrumental version of the same song on that album.

Evan Sanders: Such a classic album. The combination of folk and psychedelic rock set a standard for so many albums that followed. Listening to it now is a little jarring, as the juxtaposition is strange from the slow songs like Today and Comin' Back To Me to the psychedelics of Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, as well as the folksy How Do You Feel. It still deserves a permanent spot in the Classic Rock Hall of Fame. 9/10.

John Davidson: An authentic slice of hippy trippy rock. It is largely a gentle, almost folky sound albeit with jangling electric guitars. White Rabbit is the recognised stand-out and rightly so. Somebody To Love is no slouch either. The rest are pleasant but not much of a draw to me.

Chris Elliott: The obvious tracks are why I bought this ages ago. It's generally pleasant beyond the hits - it's problem is time. Someone's done everything (bar White Rabbit/ Somebody to Love) better in the passing years. That and Plastic Fantastic is an awful end to the album.

Brian Carr: The music history geek in me knows full well the 1960s were the most important decade in rock history - when forward thinking musicians showed this style of music wasn’t just a fad or a different sounding bubble gum pop, but an art form that could venture forth in countless directions. Despite this understanding, the sixties will never be my personal favourite decade for music, and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow is a perfect example why.

The two hits are so ubiquitous at this point they typically pass by without garnering thought - they were breakthrough songs for the band, but don’t really move my meter to the good or bad. Personally, I always approach previously unexplored albums (by me, of course) with hopes of discovering gems unmined by radio. And here we find my personal hang-up with so much sixties music: there’s just nothing here that piques my interest. Nothing I’d call a hook, nothing really skilful musically or vocally. Dated production that sounds like it’s recorded in a bathroom and a lot of gang vocals that contribute to the dated sound. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but I can’t help but ask what Jefferson Airplane did that made them “important” other than come along at a certain place and time?

Uli Hassinger: This album is one of the signature albums of 1967, and captures the spirit of this era best. Love it.

The band's main attraction was the singer Grace Slick. A great and one-of-a-kind voice, a beauty with a huge aura and presence on stage. When I would have been old enough in 67 I would certainly had a crush on her. Besides she was the most badass rock chick around. Unfortunately she led the exaggerated life of a rock star - like many others back then - and took every drug which came her way, which really messed her up.

The album combines tracks which are still beat rock (//My Best Friend) with psychedelic songs (White Rabbit) and flower power tunes. 1966 and 1967 were the years were rock music transformed and set the base for every genre yet to come. This album is a great example of that.

I love all the tracks on it, but the best ones are the marvellous ballads Today and Coming Back To Me and the psychedelic Plastic Fantastic Lover and White Rabbit, which belongs to the 10 best songs of the late 60s to me. Grace's way of singing was very special and outstanding at this time.

A masterpiece, and still a monument in rock history.

Mike Canoe: Surrealistic Pillow is one of those "come for/stay for" albums. As in, come for the hits, Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, and stay for the rest. Actually, once you get past those two Grace Slick ripsnorters, the second Jefferson Airplane album is a much gentler, lighter flight.

Surrealistic Pillow often detours into folk music, like guitarist Jorma Koukonen's pretty instrumental Embryonic Journey or Paul Kantner's D.C.B.A.-25, which could have been inspired by the Byrds, inspiring to early REM, or both. Then there are Marty Balin's haunting ballads, Today and Comin' Back to Me, the latter with a melody played by Grace Slick on recorder (!). The recorder makes a reappearance of the beautifully kaleidoscopic, How do You Feel/, which has the multiple vocalists in the band chiming in and among each other.

There are other psychedelic rockers too, but they rock relatively gently like She Drives Funny Cars, Plastic Fantastic Lover, or 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds. Again, the intertwining vocals are always a joy to hear.

I first bought Surrealistic Pillow the summer after my freshman year in college. Granted, it was a couple of decades after the Summer of Love, but I was still in the right headspace to receive it. It even inspired me to read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, which, sadly, was nowhere as cool or trippy as the song White Rabbit. I found the source material rather dull, but I still love the song and the album it came from.

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Final score: 8.04 (42 votes cast, total score 338)

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