Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was an American rock band from San Francisco, a pioneer of the LSD-influenced psychedelic rock movement. Various successor incarnations of the band have performed under different names, reflecting changing times and performer lineups, known as Jefferson Starship, and later simply Starship.

Jefferson Airplane was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The term Jefferson airplane is also slang for a used match bent to hold a marijuana cigarette that has been smoked too short to hold without burning the hands. An urban legend claims this was the origin for the band's name, though according to band member Jorma Kaukonen the name was invented by his friend Steve Talbot as a satire of blues names such as "Blind Lemon" Jefferson [1] (

The Jefferson Airplane, portrayed on the cover of the Surrealistic Pillow album.
The Jefferson Airplane, portrayed on the cover of the Surrealistic Pillow album.

Jefferson Airplane

This rock group formed on the west coast of the USA during the summer of 1965 in what was called the San Francisco Bay folk boom. Singer Marty Balin recruited another folk musician, Paul Kantner, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, jazz and folk vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, drummer Jerry Peloquin, and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey. They drew inspiration from groups such as the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Lovin' Spoonful, and built a local following at the Matrix Club.

The group made its first public appearance August 13, 1965 at The Matrix club in San Francisco. Peloquin was a seasoned musician whose disdain for the others' drug use was a factor in his departure just a few weeks after the group began its career. Skip Spence then took the drum chair. The band gradually developed a more electric sound which led to Harvey's replacement by Kaukonen's childhood friend, Jack Casady in October 1965. Later in 1965, they signed to Record Corporation of America and recorded an album for release the following year called Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. In 1966, Spence was replaced by jazz drummer Spencer Dryden and Anderson by singer Grace Slick, formerly of another San Francisco group, The Great Society. Amongst their fans, the group's name was further shortened to "the Airplane". Slick brought with her a powerful and supple contralto voice, well suited to the group's amplified psychedelic music, as well as a number of important compositions, including "White Rabbit" (which Grace wrote) and "Somebody To Love" (written by Grace's brother-in-law, Great Society guitarist Darby Slick).

Their transition from local to national notoriety was made possible by their appearance at the epochal Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Monterey showcased leading bands from several major music 'scenes' including New York , San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the resulting TV and film coverage gave national (and international) exposure to groups that had previously only had regional fame. All these bands were also greatly assisted by appearances on nationally syndicated TV shows such The Ed Sullivan Show, which were videotaped in color and augmented by recent developments in video techniques. The Airplane's famous appearance on the Sullivan show, performing "White Rabbit", has been frequently re-screened and is notable for its pioneering use of the Chroma key process to simulate the Airplane's customary psychedelic lightshow.

Membership remained stable until 1970, by then they had recorded five more albums. The first of these, Surrealistic Pillow (1967), included two classic tracks, "White Rabbit" (inspired by the hallucinogenic drug LSD, then extremely popular in San Francisco, Maurice Ravel's Bolero, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland), and the rousing anthem "Somebody to Love", as well as a reminder of their earlier folk incarnation, Kaukonen's solo acoustic guitar tour de force, "Embryonic Journey", which referenced contemporary acoustic guitar masters such as John Fahey and helped to establish the popular genre exemplified by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke. The album was extremely successful, reaching #6 in the US album charts, and alongside Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors' debut album, Love's Forever Changes and Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, it is widely regarded as one of the seminal albums of the so-called "Summer Of Love".

After Bathing at Baxter's (1967) further showed their proficiency in psychedelic rock. Its famous cover features a whimsical re-imagining of the group's Haight-Ashbury house as a Heath Robinson-inspired flying machine, drawn by artist and cartoonist Ron Cobb. Crown Of Creation (1968) was a transitionary record, more structured than ...Baxters, whereas Bless Its Little Pointed Head (1969) captured their live sound, recorded at concerts at the Fillmore and the Fillmore East. In the aftermath of the demise of the San Francisco scene, the band released Volunteers (1969), their most political venture; the title track, "We Can Be Together", "Good Shepherd", and the post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships" (also recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash) were all highlights.

The band performed in an early "morning maniac music" slot at the Woodstock festival in August 1969. In December that year they played at the infamous free concert held at the Altamont speedway in California. The concert, which was headlined by The Rolling Stones and also featured The Grateful Dead, was marred by crowd violence -- Marty Balin was knocked out during a scuffle with Hell's Angels members who had been hired to act as 'security' -- and the event became notorious due to the death of black teenager Meredith Hunter, who was fatally stabbed in front of the stage by Hell's Angels 'guards' after allegedly pulling out a revolver during the Stones' performance.

Balin and Dryden left shortly thereafter. Bark and Long John Silver were released on the band's own label, Grunt, with Joey Covington on drums and "Papa" John Creach on fiddle, after which the group effectively disbanded as Casady and Kaukonen converted their side-project Hot Tuna to a full time band. The live album 30 Seconds Over Winterland (1973) is now best remembered for its cover art, featuring a squadron of flying toasters, which in turn spawned the famous "After Dark" computer screensaver design.

Jefferson Starship

During the transitional period of the early 1970s, Paul Kantner recorded the album Blows Against The Empire with an ad-hoc group of musicians whom he dubbed the Jefferson Starship, marking the first-ever use of that name. The Starship (such as it was) included David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Jerry Garcia (of The Grateful Dead), and even former members of Jefferson Airplane. It was while that album was made that Kantner sealed his love affair with Grace Slick, and their daughter China Kantner was born shortly after. A very similar ad-hoc group of musicians celebrated China's birth with an environmentalism-tinged album titled "Sunfighter", credited to Kantner and Slick.

In 1974, the Airplane was formally reborn as Jefferson Starship, with Kantner and Slick as charter members; Balin came on board in time to record the hit single "Caroline" for the first Jefferson Starship album, Dragon Fly. This line-up, which also included late-Airplane holdovers drummer John Barbata, fiddler Papa John Creach, and bassist-keyboarder-vocalist David Freiberg (from the Quicksilver Messenger Service), along with Pete Sears, also playing bass and keyboards, and guitarist Craig Chaquico, proved to be the band's most commercially successful so far, although some Airplane fans were less than happy with its more mainstream direction. Balin's sophisticated ballad "Miracles" helped 1975's Red Octopus achieve multiple-platinum status. The follow-ups, Spitfire (1976), and Earth (1978), were both big sellers. However, Slick's alcoholism became a problem, which led to two nights of disastrous concerts in Germany in 1978. The first night, fans ransacked the stage after Slick failed to appear. The following night, Slick, in a drunken stupor, shocked the audience by using profanity and sexual references throughout most of her songs. After the debacle, she left the band.

Towards the end of 1978, the Starship (now without Grace Slick) recorded Light The Sky On Fire for The Star Wars Holiday Special (under its original title Cigar-Shaped Object), after which Balin too left the group, leaving Kantner and company to find a new lead singer in Mickey Thomas (who had sung lead on Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around And Fell In Love"). Thomas's soaring falsetto steered the band toward a harder rock sound, leading to comparisons to Journey. It didn't help that former Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar had replaced Barbata, who had been injured in a car accident.

After the 1979 release of Freedom At Point Zero (which spawned the hit single "Jane"), Grace Slick suddenly returned to the band for one song, "Stranger" on their next album, Modern Times in 1981. Winds Of Change followed in 1982 and Nuclear Furniture appeared in May of 1984.


In 1984, Kantner (the last founding member of Jefferson Airplane remaining) left the group, but not before taking legal action against his former bandmates over the Jefferson name (the rest of the band wanted to continue as Jefferson Starship). Kantner won his suit, and the group name was reduced to simply Starship, marking the third incarnation of the band. Freiberg, who had been increasingly marginalized in the band, left as well.

In 1985, Starship released Knee Deep In The Hoopla and immediately scored two # 1 hits with "We Built This City" (later declared to be the worst song of all time by Blender Magazine) and "Sara"; the first time any incarnation of the Airplane had had a # 1 hit. The album went platinum.

Starship also had a Hollywood connection. In 1987 "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" was featured in the film Mannequin and hit # 1.

By the time No Protection was released, bassist Pete Sears had left. The album went gold and featured the hits "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" and "It's Not Over ('Til It's Over)". Grace Slick also left in 1988. Like Pete Sears and David Freiberg before her, her career was downsized by the commercial entity Starship was embracing.

The revamped lineup released Love Among The Cannibals in 1989. The lineup, however, had disbanded by 1990.

Reunion and remnants

Solo careers and the attractions of other bands beckoned throughout. But in 1989, during a solo San Francisco gig, Paul Kantner found himself joined by former bandmate (and lover) Grace Slick and two other ex-Airplane members for a cameo appearance. This led to a formal reunion of the original Jefferson Airplane (featuring nearly all the main members, including founder Marty Balin, but without Spencer Dryden, who had been kicked out of the band years earlier). A self-titled album was released by Columbia Records. The accompanying tour was everything the album wasn't (a success) but their revival was short-lived, and thus Jefferson Airplane was officially disbanded for good.

Dryden suffered financial and health problems and died of colon cancer in January of 2005 at the age of 67. In 2004 Marty Balin pointed with well-deserved pride to the fact that unlike many of their contemporaries, all of the original members survived the 1960s.

Kantner rejoined with Balin and Casady in 1985 to form the KBC Band, which released KBC Band (including the Kantner hit "America") in 1987 on Arista and also featured keyboardist Tim Gorman from the Who and guitarist Slick Aguilar from David Crosby's band.

Today, there are two versions of Jefferson Starship — one officially billed as Starship featuring Mickey Thomas (with Thomas at the forefront), and the revived Jefferson Starship (often called Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation), with Kantner and Balin as leaders, and Diana Mangano replacing Grace Slick as female singer (although Slick did do guest vocals on Jefferson Starship's 1999 album Windows Of Heaven). This latter band plays frequent concerts, and on occasion Jack Casady joins them as well. Mangano is an expressive and effective singer, and this revived Jefferson Starship can often capture a good deal of the feeling of the original Airplane.


The original Jefferson Airplane, along with the Byrds, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas, Tommy James and the Shondells and to some degree Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young will always be associated with the more melodic end of the north American rock spectrum and in due course other groups, such as Steely Dan and the Eagles, continued to blend elements of folk, jazz and rock and bring the results to a global audience. Of all these bands, Jefferson Airplane excelled in the psychedelic domain and in their penchant for pretentious track titles, which came to characterise the 1965-75 era.

British bands apparently influenced by the mellow lyricism of the west coast sound included Barclay James Harvest, David Bowie, Curved Air, Family, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Pentangle and Yes. The Beatles have always stressed the influence that the Beach Boys had on their musical development (especially Pet Sounds) but it seems likely that other music from the west coast also spread eastwards and played a key part in making pop music more symphonic and less predictable than it had been before 1965. The era of trans-Atlantic jet travel ushered in a decade earlier and the ability to send TV broadcasts by satellite also facilitated a faster interplay of musical influences across the Atlantic. Donovan was evidently one of the first British pop musicians to become aware of them and was undoubtedly influenced by the group to some degree; he famously namechecked the band in his 1966 song "The Fat Angel" (included on his Sunshine Superman LP in 1967), written many months before the Airplane had become internationally known.

The role of the American Forces Network (AFN) with powerful medium wave radio transmitters situated in West Germany and "pirate radio" ships in the North Sea bringing US hits to the ears of European youth should also be recognised as a force that extended the global reach of West Coast music in the 1964-1972 period.

Record producers who worked with the original band included Greg Edward, Rick Jarrard, Matthew Katz, Ron Nevison, Tommy Oliver and Al Schmitt.



Jefferson Airplane:

  1. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) - US position: # 128
  2. Surrealistic Pillow (1967) - US position: # 5
  • breakthrough album featuring "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit"
  1. After Bathing At Baxter's (1967) - US position: # 17
  2. Crown Of Creation (1968) - US position: # 6
  3. Volunteers (1969) - US position: # 13
  4. The Worst Of Jefferson Airplane (1970) - US position: # 12
  • first greatest hits collection
  1. Bark (1971) - US position: # 11
  2. Long John Silver (1972) - US position: # 20

Jefferson Starship:

  1. Dragon Fly (1974)
  2. Red Octopus (1975)
  • best-selling album for any incarnation of the Airplane/Starship
  1. Spitfire (1976)
  2. Earth (1978)
  • last album w/ Marty Balin
  1. Freedom At Point Zero (1979)
  2. Modern Times (1981)
  3. Winds Of Change (1982)
  4. Nuclear Furniture (1984)


  1. Knee Deep In The Hoopla (1985)
  2. No Protection (1987)
  3. Love Among The Cannibals (1989)

External links

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