If Jefferson Airplane come up in the context of today's musical discourse, which doesn't happen often, they're usually seen as baby boomer relics with a couple enduring radio hits ("White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love"). They've never achieved the same classic rock superstardom as collaborators like Crosby Stills & Nash and Santana, the massive cult following of their close pals the Grateful Dead, or the critical reverence of peers The Velvet Underground. In the public eye, they're a blip, which is unfortunate because they left a far bigger impact than they tend to credit for, and there's still much to be gained from their rich catalog today.
It didn't always seem like Jefferson Airplane's legacy would get this overlooked. Back in 1967, when the hippie movement was at its peak with the Summer of Love in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and the Monterey Pop Festival, one of its leading, pioneering bands was Jefferson Airplane. At that point, Jefferson Airplane were even more at the forefront of the San Francisco scene than the Grateful Dead. The early portion of 1967 saw the release of their breakthrough record (and first with Grace Slick), Surrealistic Pillow, the album that's home to "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love." Today, it overshadows everything else they've done, but it's only the tip of the Jefferson Airplane iceberg. Later that year, they took their sound in a harder, less commercial direction, and on stage they helped sow the seeds for the jam band scene as we now know it. The Dead of course took jamming to much greater lengths after the Airplane broke up, but some of the finest jam band recordings in existence came from concerts that the Airplane played in the late '60s. As the Airplane's career went on, they continued to experiment in the studio as well, with Paul Kantner especially becoming interested in studio pop wizardry that rivaled what The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Who were getting into.
In the 1960s, if there was a counter-cultural milestone happening, the Airplane were there for it. They performed at the Human Be-In, an early precursor to pop music festivals, they were a major highlight of Monterey Pop Fest, they put on a fiery set at Woodstock, and they performed at Altamont and the first Isle of Wight. As the '60s ended, Jefferson Airplane began to splinter and form side projects that would outlast this band. Still, they (sort of) held it together for two more studio albums before quietly breaking up after a run at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom in September of 1972 (immortalized on the Thirty Seconds Over Winterland live album). In total, they lasted for eight years and seven studio albums and their creative and artistic progression rivaled just about any major rock band of the psychedelic era. At their peak, they had four capable singers and songwriters, and some of the best players on the West Coast. From humble roots to the thrilling creative differences that ultimately split up the band, there's a whole lot to like on either side of "White Rabbit," and you can spend a lifetime diving into their music and still discovering something new every time.
Having simultaneously helped pioneer psychedelic rock and psychedelic folk, Jefferson Airplane's influence can either directly or indirectly be heard today on anyone from Tame Impala to Fleet Foxes to Angel Olsen, and the Airplane remain one of the greatest bands of all time within both genres. They were true originals, they covered so much musical ground, and no one's ever really been able to replicate their formula. If you still haven't hopped aboard the Jefferson Airplane, there's no time like the present, and I've put together a guide to their discography that might help. The guide includes the seven studio albums and the one live album they released before breaking up, but I left off compilations and post-breakup live albums. (As with the Grateful Dead, many of those live recordings are stunning, but I wanted to stick to albums the band released in real time.) I also left off their self-titled 1989 reunion album, because the less said about that one the better.
In conjunction with the guide, we stocked some Jefferson Airplane records in our store, including a few classic studio albums and the Woodstock compilations that they appear on.
Read on for the guide, in chronological order...